Philly institutes weapons scans of middle schoolers. Critics say, ‘This is not OK’
All sixth through eighth graders will be scanned at least once before the end of the school year.
In the face of rising gun violence, the Philadelphia School District is beginning periodic weapons screenings in all middle schools and elementary schools with middle grades, effective Monday.
The aim is to scan all sixth through eighth graders at least once before the end of the school year. Scans will happen with handheld wands or metal detectors by district safety officers in the presence of at least one school leader, according to a letter sent to families Thursday and obtained by The Inquirer.
“The district understands that this level of screening may feel intrusive and inconvenient,” the letter reads. “The Office of School Safety is committed to implementing this process with transparency and sensitivity towards the various and unique social, developmental and societal factors. School safety personnel will treat every individual fairly and with dignity and respect.”
Before they walk through metal detectors or are scanned by hand, students will have an opportunity to dispose of any “illegal or inappropriate items,” defined as firearms, pellet or BB guns, knives, cutting instruments, brass knuckles, nunchaku, electronic shock devices, mace, “and any tool, instrument or object used or intended to be used to inflict serious bodily injury to another.” Students found to have weapons will be detained and referred to city police, the letter said.
Kevin Bethel, the district’s chief of school safety, said the decision was in response to an alarming rise in weapons discovered at K-8 schools. Two guns have already been recovered at such schools, and additional weapons have been found outside. Elementary students have also been seen waving guns outside school.
Recently, a gun was found lying outside Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia, said Bethel, adding that he was not “on a gun hunt” but is troubled by the possibility of a child finding a weapon or bringing a family member’s weapon to school, for instance, because they were being bullied.
“For me as a father and someone who’s leading school safety, I thought it was important that we’re doing our due diligence,” Bethel said. “It’s keeping our community safe — not just the youth, but the staff as well.”
The announcement came the day after school board officials appealed to City Council for help with safety measures.
Board member Reginald Streater cited grim statistics — so far this year, 96 people between the ages of 13 and 19 have been shot, and 12 people younger than 18 have been murdered.
“I’m sure you will agree that there is an urgent need to decrease levels of gun violence in the city to keep our children safe wherever they are, but especially as they go to and from school,” Streater told City Council on Wednesday.
District high schools already have metal detectors; students at those schools are scanned daily. Some students have raised objections to that policy, saying they feel the scans criminalize them. Bethel has pledged more training for his officers — part of a general push to make the force, rebranded from “school police,” feel less like law enforcement and more like mentors.
Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, was aghast at the news.
“The School District of Philadelphia continues to criminalize our children and wonder why our babies do not want to go into these classrooms,” Gaines said. “This is not OK.”
Zion Brooks, a senior at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, was similarly upset by the news.
“It just goes right back to the incessant overpolicing that young people are under in the school district,” said Brooks, 18, a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, which has organized against metal detectors in schools.
Bethel said he hears parents and students who might be alarmed at the prospect of 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds being scanned for weapons as they enter school, but said he hoped this change — which does not require board approval because a blanket policy permits weapons detection in schools — would provide a message to young people.
“There’s a lot of anxiety among the school leaders and teachers. Some of our schools are located in the toughest areas in America,” Bethel said. “It’s not trying to criminalize everyone — I have these tools available to make sure that these schools and communities are safe.”
Bethel said that schools will be chosen randomly for scans, that every effort will be made to conduct the scans in ways that are not disruptive to the learning environment, and that leaders will evaluate over the summer whether to continue middle-grades scanning in the 2022-23 school year, which begins in August.